What to Look for When Buying Binoculars

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A thoughtful and useful gift for the nature enthusiast or season-ticket holder on your holiday shopping list is a set of binoculars. As opposed to certain tech gadgets, binoculars can provide the recipient with years of service and are likely to reveal undiscovered details just beyond the view of unaided eyes.

Purchasing binoculars for that seasoned birder probably means upgrading their existing set to something with superior image quality, build quality, or handling. Instead of upgrading their general-purpose set, your friend or family member may enjoy binoculars with task-specific functionality, like high-powered astro-binoculars or a trail-ready set of pocket-size glasses.

What to Look For

Important factors to consider when purchasing binoculars include form factor, image quality, and build quality. Although several variables influence overall performance of an optic, this guide focuses on key features that will help you find a set of glasses well suited for the leaf peeper or sightseer in your life.

The sections below divide the binocular market into three loosely defined categories, based on size. Regardless of their form factor, the viewing experience of all binoculars will be influenced by common optical and physical traits. For starters, a 10 x 42 binocular has 10x magnification and objective lenses that are 42mm wide. Magnification power and objective size aside, the most important optical specs to keep in mind are apparent viewing angle, eye relief, and minimum focus distance.

Generally, more is better when it comes to apparent angle of view (AAOV) and eye relief; less is more for minimum focus distance. Apparent viewing angle measures the field of view visible to the observer. An AAOV of 45° is adequate for most observations, 60° or wider will offer an immersive visual scene that will be greatly appreciated by naturalists and sports fans.

Qualities that affect the durability and viewing comfort of binoculars are as important as optical performance. Most of today’s binoculars have at least some weatherproofing. For additional protection against rain and humidity, look for binoculars that have a nitrogen-filled, fogproof housing. Although waterproof optics have o-ring seals to prevent light rain from entering the housing, only fogproof binoculars are filled with dry gas that keeps moisture from condensing on internal lens surfaces.

In terms of viewing comfort, twist-up eyecups allow an adjustable viewing distance that is preferable for most observers, especially eyeglass wearers. For those likely to use their binoculars in wet or cold conditions, textured rubber armoring and deep ridges on the focus wheel can assist focus accuracy as well as enhance tactile feedback while wearing gloves.

Compact

For a set of glasses small enough to carry during hikes, family vacations, or a day at the ballpark, good compact binoculars fuse portability and image quality so a closer view won’t weigh you down or occupy excess space in a suitcase or daypack. Each of the following compact binoculars will make a great travel companion; most will even fit in a cargo pocket or the side pocket of a day pack. The three options listed below feature high-transmission prism glass that allows the binoculars to preserve image brightness and clarity.

Bushnell’s 10 x 25 H20 Compact Binocular not only offers a streamlined form factor, it also has textured rubber armoring for slip-resistant grip in addition to being nitrogen-filled for fogproof and waterproof performance. Optically, the 10 x 25 H20 has BAK4 prism glass to maximize transmitted light. An expansive 65° apparent angle of view and 15-foot, close-focusing distance make these binoculars ready for birding, sightseeing, and almost any recreational viewing.

Aculon T01 binoculars from Nikon are sold in 8x and 10x configurations and several color variations, including metallic finishes, which allow these pocket-sized binoculars to serve as a stylish accessory for nights at the theatre or concert hall. Both versions can be focused as close as 10 feet and display an apparent angle of view greater than 45°. This combination of viewing angle and minimum focus distance makes the T01 suitable for a wide range of observations.

For a top-shelf viewing experience from a compact set, look no further than Swarovski’s CL Pocket series binoculars. Available in 8 x 25 and 10 x 25 versions, CL Pocket glasses feature precise construction in addition to premium glass and a fully multi-coated light path. Any set of glasses from the Swarovski lineup is sure to dazzle the eye and deliver smooth focusing action with supple feel. Basically, the nature enthusiast on your holiday shopping list will thank you for years to come.


Swarovski’s optical technologies comprise industry-leading optical glass and multi-layer coatings. Images rendered by the CL Pocket binocular have lifelike colors, rich contrast, and impressive detail that extend across the 52° AAOV (53° on 10x model). Complementing their image quality, CL Pocket binoculars boast an 8-foot, close-focus distance as well as 17mm eye relief and twist-up eyecups made of hypoallergenic rubber. For the latest edition of the CL series binoculars, Swarovski engineered a scalloped dual-hinge bridge that further minimizes the compact footprint by allowing the barrels to fold under their central support.

Standard

Compared to compact binoculars, full-size or “standard” binoculars have larger objective lenses and a handheld form factor intended for comfortable handling and enhanced light-gathering ability. Nikon’s Monarch series has been a mainstay on the binocular market for more than a decade. Available in 42mm and 56mm versions, the Monarch 5 is equipped with a fully multi-coated optical path, extra-low dispersion (ED) lenses, and BAK4 prism glass. Each Monarch 5 model displays impressive brightness and clarity; the 8-foot, close-focus distance, 19.5mm eye relief (18mm on 10x), and ergonomically contoured body make the Monarch 5 both versatile and comfortable to handle. Like several others in Nikon’s sporting optics stable, Monarch 5 glasses have responsibly sourced Eco-Glass prisms and lenses that are free of arsenic and lead.

The 10x and 12x configurations of Barska's 42mm Blackhawk series binoculars are available with Mossy Oak camouflage armor coating, helping the outdoorsman in your life disappear into the late Autumn woodland landscape. In addition to the camo finish, Blackhawk binoculars can be an asset to tree-stand dwellers, thanks to fully multi-coated optics and a near-panoramic 66° AAOV (63° on 12x models). Rounding out the list of features is a nitrogen-filled, fogproof housing that has diamond-cut, non-slip grips for enhanced grip when the weather turns wet.


Zeiss Terra ED binoculars offer durable construction, ergonomic design, and premium glass. It’s hard to match the price-performance ratio of Terra ED optics. Both models can be focused as close as 5.25 feet and display an AAOV greater than 55°. ED glass finished with Zeiss’s proprietary MC multi-layer lens coating produce bright views that are tack sharp and rich with contrast. Terra ED binoculars are a great option for hikers, birders, and other observers with a keen eye for detail.

High-Powered

When the subject of interest lies far beyond the sun, eclipsing the moon, or rare species perched on a distant limb, the stargazer or naturalist on your shopping list will appreciate the high magnification and large objective lens diameter of high-powered optics. Sometimes referred to as astro-binoculars, these glasses tend to be larger and have a built-in ¼”-20 threaded mount for attaching to a tripod. Their size and magnification power make them impractical for handheld viewing tasks, but they are extremely useful for specific purposes, like watching the approaching comet ISON.

Binoculars with magnification of 20x or more will usually provide a field of view that is narrow enough for observing the moon, yet wide enough to view constellations and terrestrial landscapes as well. Pentax's 20 x 60 PCF WP II binoculars, Celestron’s 25 x 100 SkyMaster binoculars and their smaller-objective series mate 25 x 70 SkyMaster have weather-sealed housings and threaded mounts for a tripod adapter, as well as fully multi-coated optics, BAK4 prism glass and Porro prism design. Compared to roof prism designs, a Porro design enables greater depth of field that is especially valuable when viewing distant objects at high magnification.

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This is awesome! My brother is a big time hunter, and has been needing some new binoculars. I've been looking around trying to find some, but really have no idea what makes a good pair of binoculars and what doesn't. After seeing this though I have a much better idea of what I'm looking for. Thanks so much for sharing this!

Jason